The night before I flew out of town for Memorial Day weekend, I met one of my high school tennis coaches, his family, and another player and her mom for dinner. I played for this coach my sophomore year of high school. I played the number one spot for girls’ singles and doubles, but I did so under the shadow of the previous year’s number one player, who was a far better player than I and had a much better ranking in the state than I did. In short, the year hurt, partly because I had to change schools because my family moved and partly because I thought the coach didn’t like me. I found out at dinner the other night that he didn’t dislike me. In fact, he gifted me with one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.
I went to dinner that night because my friend Ilene had been telling me for a couple of years that I should connect with this coach – that doing so would do me good. At first, I dismissed her suggestion because she didn’t know the full extent of my experience with him. She played for him too, but she graduated before I got to the school. Many of the really good players did. My year with him was the year of “Adversity.” I didn’t know how many times I heard the words, “Nancy would have…” or “Nancy could have…” Nancy would have done and could have done a lot of things, but I wasn’t Nancy. I wasn’t sure who I was to this coach. I wasn’t sure who I was even to myself. I was just a kid who had to go to a new school – a massive school in massive school district – because her parents decided to leave the little rural community she’d gone to school in from kindergarten to the ninth grade – the one where all her friends were and where she desperately wanted to be.
I did my best, and I remember playing some matches really well – “treeing” out of my mind. (I hope I have that term right. I think we used to say that when someone played far better than he should and beat someone no one thought he had a chance in hell of beating.) I remember that happening in one match in particular. I tried not to think in that match and just hoped with each shot that my ridiculous lucky streak would continue. I also remember playing the district match against our rival and being either the last or second to the last match on the court, with everyone gathered around watching. Coach didn’t say, but given the bodies standing court-side, both of us playing the match knew the outcome mattered. I remember Coach giving me a huge hug after I won that match and we won the district title.
Despite those successes, I remember feeling inadequate. I remember feeling insecure. I remember feeling like I wasn’t as good as the players he’d had before. I wasn’t fast enough on our timed two-mile runs (which felt like crazy long runs back then). I remember trying to focus on his words but being distracted by the damn reflective sunglasses he wore that kept me from being able to see his eyes when he talked to me. I remember on the last day of school, after a poor showing on our two-mile run, he took our team into the portables on campus and wrote four words that started with the letter “D” on the whiteboard. I think they were “Dedication Desire Discipline Determination.” He said, “If you don’t have these things, I don’t want you to come back to this team next year.” I remember feeling like he was talking specifically to me in that moment, like he was telling me that I didn’t have those things and that I wasn’t good enough.
So I left.
I went home after that team meeting in the portables and started looking for other alternatives for schooling, and I landed on a boarding school two thousand miles away where tennis was something I did a few months out of the year, rather than a few hours each day. Once in New Hampshire, I let my state ranking go, and I built a new life, with wonderful new friends that included, but didn’t revolve around, tennis.
Ultimately, my boarding school experience is something I wouldn’t trade for the world, but the rejection I felt as a kid that sent me to look for somewhere else to go? I’d let go of that in a heartbeat. And I did.
On that Thursday night, as I had dinner with my coach, as I listened to him tell me of the challenges of having a twenty-two-year winning record and the luck that helped him along the way, I saw him as…kind. He wasn’t the scary man behind the reflective sunglasses anymore. He was a gentle, passionate man who loves the game and the people who played for him.
At one point over dinner, he was telling me about a girl who came a couple of years after I left. He said, “She was a lot like you — tenacious. She didn’t give up.” I interrupted his story. I asked, “Is that how you remember me?” And with the “yes” that came out of his mouth before he continued with his story, years of anxiety and insecurity lifted off of my shoulders and my heart. As he continued to tell me stories – fascinating stories about the world of high school sports – I repeated his words to myself again and again until I could pull out my notepad and write them down.
I’m sorry that sixteen-year old me let my insecurity steer me away from another two years of playing for this man. I wonder sometimes what might have been had I continued to play tennis year round. I could have played on Coach’s team with my friend Michelle, who entered the school as a sophomore the year after I left. Could I have improved my state ranking? Could I have played in college like so many of my friends did? Might I have continued to play tennis as an adult? I don’t know. There’s not much point in looking back at that now. Like I said before, I wouldn’t trade my boarding school experience for anything, and I love the running, swimming and biking that I do now. I even play tennis every once in a while, just for fun.
But looking back, I see that the words I carried with me for the last twenty-five years were the wrong ones. They weren’t words that were ever actually spoken to me. They were words I thought I heard. They were my understanding, or perhaps misunderstanding, of this man’s efforts to make me a better player. I can let go of those old words now because I have new ones to replace them. And these new words? I plan to keep these with me for the next twenty-five years…and then some.